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Who Is the Most Valuable Player in Baseball? (Part 1)

It started with Bill Simmons’ annual NBA Trade Value column for ESPN.com. Dave Cameron picked up the baton for FanGraphs with his MLB Trade Value rankings. Breaking down the top commodities in each sport based on a combination of ability, age and contract status offers fun fodder for debate, and insight into what different teams have with their most valuable assets.

Feh! Too much nuance, I say.

The feeding frenzy already started over Albert Pujols’ potential free agency reminds us how rarely truly elite players hit the open market, and the raging demand that emerges at the slightest hint that a true superstar could become available. So what would happen, I wondered, if every player in baseball was declared a free agent tomorrow? Who would be the most sought-after player in the game?

Here are the ground rules. Every active player who has played a game in the major leagues is eligible. Every team has the same budget, and the same salary commitments (which is to say, none). Every ballpark has the same neutral dimensions. Leagues and divisions are abolished. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), every player would be a team’s to keep for the rest of his career.

Under those conditions, which player would be most in demand? In other words, who is the most valuable player in baseball, no conditions attached?

To find our answer, let’s use some process of elimination. Then tomorrow we’ll break down our top three candidates, and pick a winner.

(Note: We like short(er)-form writing here at FanGraphs, so a few of these may rival Bill James’ infamous “pass” on Jeff Bagwell for brevity and glibosity. That’s what the Comments section is for.)

Notable Omissions

All pitchers: Too much attrition, too much unpredictability. But I will listen to your argument, Jamie Moyer backers.

Josh Hamilton: Reigning AL MVP, terrifying hitter and superior fielder at a premium position. If only he could stay healthy for a full season.

Joey Votto: He’s Canadian, so you know this hurts. But even though Votto just (deservedly) won NL MVP and is just 27 years old, first baseman who can pound the ball are plentiful. If you’re a first baseman and you want to make this list, you need to be nearly historically great.

Miguel Cabrera: Here’s a first baseman who qualifies as historically great offensively (so far anyway), but defensive concerns and some attitude and conditioning question marks in the fairly recent past make him ineligible. Our top dog has to be pretty damn close to perfect.

Dustin Pedroia: #5 on Cameron’s 2010 Trade Value list, and you can certainly make a case that as a member of the Red Sox, he’s one of the very best position players in baseball. But we’ve stripped park effects out of the equation here; few players benefit more from the specific quirks of a ballpark than Pedroia does from Fenway. The Laser Show has produced an average of 51 doubles per 162 games at the Fens in the past four seasons, making up a huge chunk of Pedroia’s success. Love the D and position, age is OK, but Pedroia just misses the cut.

Carlos Gonzalez: See also, Dustin Pedroia (1.161 OPS at Coors Field, .775 on the road).

David Wright: He’s already 28, we can’t totally hand-wave away his bizarre 2009 power drought as a function of home park, and advanced defensive metrics haven’t been kind to him the last two years.

Jason Heyward: Leaving him out of the top two could prove to be a big pile of wrong 15 years from now. But our ideal player has to have both many great years ahead and more than one year of success in the majors to convince us he’s a blue-chip talent.

Buster Posey: See also, Jason Heyward.

Justin Upton/Jay Bruce: Big-time power potential, good to excellent defense, rare blend of established talent and youth. But you have to deduct at least a few points for all those strikeouts and what they mean for potential future outcomes.

Robinson Cano: Our ideal player must draw his fair share of walks, to combat against the inevitable seasons when he hits a few more balls than expected right at fielders. Cano walks a lot more than expected, but still less than league average. He’s also big for a second baseman, doesn’t run and doesn’t fare all that well by traditional defensive metrics, which makes you wonder if he’ll be playing a different position in a few years.

Troy Tulowitzki: Some of the same home/road concerns as CarGo (.926 home OPS; .790 road). We might have overlooked that split given he’s a great defender at the toughest position on the diamond, has a track record of success, and is still just 26. But the 101 games missed in 2008 and 2010 combined (yes, they might have been isolated incidents that don’t suggest a chronic health risk, but they still happened) raise just enough of an injury red flag to disqualify him.

Ryan Zimmerman: A year older, with a track record a half-smidge below our preferred third baseman. He’s got a good case for being #4 on the list.